1566: The inland haven

The Mayor of Exeter ordered his men to clear the obstacles in the river, but it was too late. The channel had silted up and ships could no longer sail to the city. The Mayor then decided to bypass the Courtenay weirs by building a canal, the first in Britain since Roman times. This would allow Exeter to become an inland haven.

John Trew (d.1590) from Glamorgan was commissioned to design and oversee construction. Work began in 1563 and ended in 1566 with the finished canal 2 miles long, 5m wide and 1m deep. It ran from near the Water Gate in Exeter and joined the river halfway between Exeter and Topsham, near today’s swing bridge. It had three 30m pound locks, with vertical gates like guillotines. Each lock provided a lift of 50cm.

As the new waterway was shallow, all but the smallest boats had to anchor in the river and their cargoes went through the canal on lighters (flat-bottomed barges) pulled by workmen. At Exeter, goods were loaded and unloaded at a new stone quay, with a wooden crane like the one on the Courtenays’ quay at Topsham.

As soon as the canal opened, trade at Topsham dropped. Things turned violent and a Topsham lighterman was severely injured before the Exeter mayor agreed to pay compensation for loss of business.